The Divine Miss H
Joseph Epstein, kitten person
Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45
As I tap this out on my computer, there resides in my yellow wooden inbox a sleeping three-month-old female Calico kitten named Hermione. I acquired her this past Friday evening, and spent the better part of the weekend in her company. Jolly company it was, too, all fun and games. In the most famous moot question in literature, Montaigne asked if he were playing with his cat or if his cat were instead playing with him. I failed to ask this question of the divine Miss H., but I can attest that the two of us had a swell time.
I have had a pair of Siamese cats (Ralph and Clara) and, more recently, a quietly affectionate tiger-striped cat (Isabelle), who used to sit beside me at our kitchen counter during my coffee and early morning reading. When Isabelle died, I thought her irreplaceable, and therefore made no attempt to replace her.
A few weeks ago, at a local pet store called The Fish Bowl, I saw a sign in the window advertising rescued animals. Among them was a litter of kittens whose mother was killed and not around to raise them. The runt of the litter was the not-yet-named Hermione. She was still too young to be taken home, as I probably would have done, so immediately enamored of her was I. I made a mental note to stop back to see her again. I did, and found myself no less nuts about her, but, somehow, delayed making the decision to bring her to our apartment. On a third trip, at last ready to make my move, I learned that someone had come earlier that same day and whisked her away.
We have here a tragedy with a happy ending—William Dean Howells’s formula for a successful Broadway play—for the person who took the kitten had another cat in his house who had territorial rights and wanted no new animals on the scene, and so he had to bring Hermione back to the pet shop. At this point—maestro, please play the heavily violin-laden finale to the movie An Affair to Remember—Hermione and I permanently entered each other’s lives.
Hermione immediately found her food and water dishes, and straightaway used her litter box. Well-trained dogs offer their owners uncritical adoration, as J. R. Ackerley, author of My Dog Tulip, learned to his contentment. Well-trained is never an adjectival phrase one would think to place before the noun cat. In place of uncritical adoration, cats offer elegant sang-froid, fits of passionate intensity and affection, and, when the mood strikes them, a fine go-bugger-off-pal independence that makes the phrase cat-owner an imprecision. Nobody, finally, owns a cat. Cats are instead superior house guests.
Calico means mottled and multicolored, and in Hermione’s case the multicolors are caramel, black, gray, white, and, on her left side, tiger striping. Nothing the least bit symmetrical about the placement of any of these colors, either, with the exception of her paws, all of which are white, though with differently shaped gray markings above each. On her, as they say, it looks good. I, at least, cannot take my eyes off her.
In dreams begin responsibilities, and the same might be said about pets. Equipage has to be taken on—in the case of a cat, a litter box, bowls, a carry-box—food provided, the ample bills of veterinarians paid. One cannot travel without making arrangements for their care. A pet—even a single goldfish—does not simplify one’s life. “Simplify, simplify,” said that self-approving nudnik Thoreau. In my own life, I have never come within hailing distance of being able to do so.
When I look at the three-month-old Hermione capering about our apartment, the thought occurs to me that this charming creature, with the luck of good health, could easily outlive me. Was I right to have brought her into my life? Did I need to add to my list of morning errands the cleaning of a litter box? Have I joined the ranks of the pet-goofy who make up much of the clientele at PetSmart, where the other day I paid my first visit, to purchase a scratching mat? That mat and others of her toys are for the moment strewn around the floor of our formerly orderly living room. Shall I end my days as—groan—a cat-person?
And then I hear the galloping clatter of Hermione’s paws, as she races along the wooden floors of our long hall, a run that sometimes ends with her popping onto my lap, causing my heart to leap and to conclude, without hesitation, that simplicity and good order are vastly overrated.